Michael Birnbaum writes on the Washington Post website about negotiations underway in Uruguay to have an international treaty to reduce plastic pollution. No one says it will be easy. For those wanting to follow latest developments, please go to the Energy Negotiations Bulletin website of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
Work is starting on the biggest environmental treaty since Paris. It aims to tackle plastic pollution
Everyone agrees plastics are a problem — the question is what to do about them.
They can be found floating in the Arctic Sea, coursing through our bodies and billowing through the air.
Now, representatives from more than 150 countries are gathered in Uruguay this week to begin work on what backers hope will be an international treaty to reduce plastic pollution. Advocates hope to create plans to reduce plastic production, make recycling easier and stem the vast tide of plastics that flow into the world’s oceans.
The goal, many of them hope, is to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040, stopping the conveyor belt of what the United Nations Environment Program says is a garbage truck of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. The policymakers, along with civil society and industry representatives, are meeting in the beach town of Punta del Este for the first of five meetings that are scheduled to run to the end of 2024 to prepare a treaty.
“A number of countries have said this is the most important environmental treaty negotiation in years. It speaks to what our ambitions are for this agreement. We’re facing a triple planetary crisis where the earth is far beyond safe limits for climate change. We are facing massive biodiversity loss and we are facing unsustainable levels of pollution. Plastics sit at the nexus of that crisis,” said Carroll Muffett, the president of the Center for International Environmental Law, by phone from Uruguay.
Among the elements under discussion: reducing the hazardous chemicals used to make plastics, making them less hazardous and easier to recycle. Capping plastics production is also on the table — which would in turn make it more economical to reuse the plastic that already exists, since right now it is usually cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it.
And representatives are also set to discuss the fate of waste pickers, the millions of people who work in the informal economy, mostly in the Global South, who hunt for reusable material in landfills and other collections of debris. Their representatives say that any plastics agreement needs to take them into account, and help them transition to other ways to make a living.
But while there is broad agreement that plastics are a problem, there are divisions about how to handle the issue. Some countries — including the 27 nations of the European Union, South Korea, Colombia and Canada — favor global bans on certain kinds of plastics, along with binding rules governing the entire life cycle of plastic.
Other countries — including the United States — are proposing a very different approach, advocating that countries come up with national plans to address the problem. That would emulate the model created by the United Nations approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions — and it would also make any effort more politically palatable in Washington. But critics say that plans determined by individual countries as opposed to global bans aren’t going to be enough to meet the moment.
The State Department said its approach would have teeth.
“As I made clear in my national statement at the INC: ‘[t]o achieve this 2040 goal, we must develop a legally-binding instrument that takes an ambitious, innovative, and country-driven approach to combating plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle.‘ While the United States advocates for a country-driven approach, any national action plans should be mandatory, not voluntary,” Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Monica Medina said in a statement.
The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind the plastics negotiation, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling for a global deal last year not long after the COP26 gathering in Glasgow, Scotland.
Some civil society representatives, including Muffett, said that the U.S. approach won’t lead to dramatic enough change to address the plastics problem.
“If you hear the U.S. delegation speak from the floor, they use the word ambition a lot, but what the U.S. is pushing for is not a globally binding set of commitments where we set a global goal to limit plastic production and phase out toxic products,” Muffett said. “What is politically achievable in the U.S. may not align with what the science says is needed to address the rising tides of plastic.”